The Oaks Ignore Their Pleas

The Grammys and the Digital Couch

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on January 27, 2014

For the first time in years, I watched the Grammy Awards last night…well, I watched the first 2 hours or so, anyhow.  While I’ve always been a music fan, I didn’t watch to see any one particular act.  What drew me into the show was the notion that I could watch the digital commentary on Twitter during the broadcast.  I was the only one in my household who wanted to watch the show, and so communing with a few million people online seemed like an interesting way to take in the show.  Looking back, I might have been more entertained by the running “MST3K-like” comments of the Twitterverse than I was by the scripted jokes of the presenters.

I know that the idea of combining social media, especially Twitter and big event broadcasting isn’t a new thing – Twitter has been focused on driving more engagement through TV for several years now, and has actually hired a number of really smart, interesting people to focus on exactly that.  For more, check out this Fast Company article on the whole thing.

I think there’s a ton of possibility in this model, although l’m not sure how that might translate into a viable business model for a digital property like Twitter (and they seem to be still trying to figure this out too). Whether you’re watching alone, as I was, or in a group, the idea of being able to sit around a “virtual couch” and share thoughts and experiences about a television event as it’s happening can make the broadcast itself far more engaging – just look at what happened to Sharknado.

Interestingly, I found myself continually scrolling through the Twitter stream, and sometimes not paying too much attention to the show itself, especially during the commercials.  This might be a problem for brands, who don’t need another way for people to check out of their commercials in the time-shifted, short attention span world we now live in.  While advertisers (hello, Pepsi) can buy tagged, sponsored tweets to try and catch people’s attention, I found them a bit annoying, to be honest,  Perhaps, though, it just takes the right KIND of engagement – rather than shilling the “Pepsi halftime show” (which was kind of a letdown, frankly), brands might be better served PARTICIPATING in the conversation.  At the end of the day, that’s what Twitter does really well – enable conversations among people with common interests, and conversations aren’t what most brands do well yet.

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The Unpredictability of Weather

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on January 22, 2014

As I write this, my kids are in bed, and in a few moments, when I go to wake them up for school, they’re going to be really disappointed.  After two days of watching local forecasters predict a “big winter storm”, with 8-10 inches of snow forecast for our area, I’m looking out the window at about 2 inches of fluff.  The plows never even made it out for this one, at least here.  

There’s no doubt that this storm was big – just south of Boston, a number of communities were approaching the 1 foot mark for snow totals before midnight last night, and by the looks of the radar on, it’s still snowing in a lot of those places.  But this storm stayed a lot further south than forecast, or perhaps, as one local meteorologist surmised last night, the dry arctic air being pulled down from the north prevented a lot of the snow from falling north of Boston.  

Either way, this winter is demonstrating rather convincingly how challenging meteorology forecasts are, even in today’s era of “big data”, satellite recon, and huge amounts of processing power.  A few weeks ago, we ended up on the other end of the weather stick, when a similar storm dropped almost two feet of snow at our door, when forecasters were calling for much less snow.  Just this past weekend, a “dusting” of snow turned into about 4 inches of heavy, wet snow, and even the local meteorologists were joking on Twitter about how the storm defied their predictions. 

I’m pretty sure that forecasts are more accurate today than they were 10 years ago – within a two day window, I think the forecasts are largely fairly accurate.  But I also think our expectations are raised, in this age of instant information, and unsurpassed processing power.  If we can ask Siri or Google who won the American League batting title in 1928 (Goose Goslin, who won it on the last day of the season), then we start to expect that same accuracy about the future.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature is still fickle, or perhaps more accurately, there are still far too many variables that impact the weather than we can model in our computers.  Perhaps someday we’ll be able to call snow days in advance of storms with precision, but for now, my kids are going to be surprised some days, and disappointed others.  Such is life…

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Healthcare and Customer Service in the Digital Age

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on January 17, 2014

Like many people my age, I’ve spent my share of time visiting doctors, going for lab work, and having assorted medical tests done over the last several years.  While our national political dialogue is focused primarily on the cost of healthcare, I’m fascinated by the state of the healthcare customer experience.  It’s very clear that our current system is designed around two priorities: cost management, and risk mitigation (for the provider, not for the patient).  Our insurance system mandates so much of the customer experience, and yet that doesn’t provide for a very positive experience for the patient (customer), not does it seem to drive much value in terms of patient outcomes.

This is what today’s healthcare experience is like from my experience:

  • Nearly every healthcare provider today asks you to sign some kind of document when you arrive for your appointment, typically to acknowledge an understanding of their Privacy policies, and to authorize them to bill your insurance carrier for the visit.  This usually is captured on a paper form with a ton of boilerplate language, and I’m guessing that at least 95% of people just sign the document at the “x” without reading a single sentence.  That paper form gets filed away somewhere, or maybe it gets scanned and filed digitally, and is probably never seen again.
  • Then there’s the “interview”, in which the receptionist validates all of the information the provider has on file for you – do you still have the same insurance?  same address? are these people your emergency contacts?.  This entire process typically takes place as the receptionist is looking at a screen, clicking through the data on a keyboard and mouse – there’s no eye contact here, and rarely any sense of personal service.  After completing this process, which takes between 5 and 10 minutes, you might be given a wristband to identify you in case you keel over while onsite, and then you’re asked to wait.
  • Once your name is called, in most cases you’re first brought to a station to take your vital signs and get your weight and sometimes height measured.  This is all typically recorded on a clipboard, for later transcription to digital records.  When you finally do see the provider, often he or she spends much of the allotted 15 minutes looking at a computer screen and recording your responses to the questions posed.  Again, hardly a warm and personal experience for something that’s the most personal of services, when you get down to it.

In addition, based on my observations and conversations with doctors and nurses, the systems that providers use to capture all of this vital patient information are extremely difficult to use and likely contribute to errors in data capture.  More than once, when finding out that I work in software, a nurse or doctor has said to me “ah, so maybe you can help fix this system!”, and then goes on to catalog their frustrations with the technology.

What if we could reimagine that experience, using tools and techniques that are becoming standard in other parts of our lives?  It might look something like this…

A few days before my appointment, I get an email from the provider reminding me of the appointment day and time. This email contains a quick survey that I can complete to verify or update all my personal information and record acknowledgment of the required privacy and billing approval info. This would also include a link to a short video explaining exactly what I’m acknowledging, so I actually can understand it if I choose. I could also be invited to download the providers mobile app (this might be an interesting product opportunity for a startup – more later, perhaps). The day of the appointment, I’d receive a reminder notification, along with directions to the office and an estimate of the time it will take me to get there from my current location.

Upon arrival at the provider’s office, I find a comfortable reception space, with a concierge carrying a tablet. If I’ve downloaded the provider’s app, my presence is detected via a local beacon network, and I’m automatically added to the list of patients who have checked in (I might confirm my presence via a prompt on my phone). If I have any questions, or if the provider needs additional information from me, the concierge can approach me and resolve anything right on his/her tablet. My smartphone app can also tell me approximately how long I can expect to wait. When it’s my turn, I might be prompted via smartphone alert to proceed to the intake station, where a nurse greets me and takes my vital signs. All of the equipment (scale, BP machine, etc) are networked to automatically update my records, and the nurse simply verifies them on his tablet. I’m then brought to the doctor’s examining room, where the doctor is waiting for me, having reviewed my history on her tablet. She’s able to have an actual conversation with me about the issue that’s brought me there, recording her notes and observations on the tablet. When the visit is complete, I’ll receive a summary of the visit, including my vitals and any notes or any actions to take, via the provider’s app. Any prescriptions needed are automatically sent to my local pharmacy, and I’ll get a notification when the prescription is ready to pick up.

Aside from the potential cost efficiencies that this model might offer, I think the smart use of technology allows a provider to design an experience that’s much more personal and welcoming to a patient. Of course, the key here continues to be the people involved – better systems won’t fix much if the provider staff isn’t focused on offering a positive experience. But at a minimum, eliminating some of the frustrations inherent in today’s systems and procedures should make it easier for providers to focus on the experience and that’s certainly better for us all.

Never, ever giv…

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on January 13, 2014

Never, ever give up on your dreams. Not when it’s difficult; and especially not when it’s sensible. Nothing is more senseless than the sensible choice to live a meaningless life.
Umair Haque

Umair writes a great piece on looking at the year ahead and creating a year that counts

The Evolution of Personal Computing: Complexity vs Simplicity

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on January 11, 2014

It’s kind of amazing how much personal computers have changed in the last 30 years, both in form factor and in capability.  My very first true computer was a Commodore Vic-20, complete with a tape drive that my father actually built from an old cassette tape player and some electronic parts.  It was basically a keyboard with the hardware embedded inside that connected to a TV, and I believe it came with a whopping 5K of memory. Then came the Apple IIe’s that we used in high school, with a separate monitor, but with the keyboard still part of the main housing.  In college I used my first Intel-based PC that ran DOS, and boasted a keyboard that was separate from the processor.  Shortly after that, along came Windows, and a mouse was added to the computing package.  And for a long time, that’s what a personal computer looked like – a big box to hold the processor and storage media (usually tan or black), a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse.  There were little outliers here and there (I still have my original Palm Pilot in a box somewhere), but for the most part, PCs were a pretty homogenous breed.

And then, a little over 10 years ago, the “big bang” happened – an explosion of devices and form factors that continues to gain speed today.  Starting with the early music players like the iPod, then smartphones, netbooks, tablets, gaming consoles – the very definition of a personal computer blurred.  While I’m sure many people still think of that box/monitor/keyboard combination when the term “PC” is evoked, the reality is that personal computing devices are blending into our environment more and more seamlessly.  We’re now starting to see entirely new devices emerge that look nothing like what’s come before, but still leverage silicon and software to do remarkable things – wearables like the Fitbit Force on my wrist, Google Glass, smart thermostats like the Nest, and the list gets longer every day.

While all of this complexity and variety is happening, there’s a parallel move towards simplicity that’s gaining strength as well.  The emergence of the cloud as a home for processing power, and the widespread adoption of broadband and wireless internet connections are creating opportunities for devices that are actually simpler and less capable by themselves, such as Google’s Chromebook laptop, a device that essentially runs a Web browser and nothing more.  For many people who use computing devices for tasks like email, creating documents and simple spreadsheets, and monitoring social media, a simple device like the Chromebook is likely all they’ll need, and eliminates a lot of the complex interaction learning that a Windows 8 PC requires.  For a long time, more features meant a better product, but for many people, the complexity of computing becomes a barrier.

Venture capitalist MG Siegler posted yesterday that he may buy his LAST computer in 2014, citing the near-perfect capabilities of an imagined Retina MacBook Air, which he feels will offer all of the things he needs, with enough power that he’d never need to upgrade again.  This is an interesting development, because for the last 30 years, computer users have been straining for the “next leap”, and computer manufacturers have sunk billions of dollars into R+D to deliver.  What if we’re reaching a point where, for the average person at least, the “traditional” computing devices of the very near future are “good enough”, and we don’t need to buy a new PC or laptop every few years?  I’m not sure I can imagine using my current iMac 20 or 30 years from now, but short of some new capability that requires a ton of local processing power, I’m also not sure what else I’d need a computing device for that the iMac can’t do.  Naturally, at some point the device itself might fail, but the built-in technology obsolescence that has become the norm in the personal computer industry might be nearing it’s end.  The implications of that, for manufacturers as well as individual users, are interesting to contemplate…

The Start of A New Year

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on January 6, 2014

I suppose everyone has spent a bit of time over the last few weeks contemplating the year just past, and thinking about the year ahead.  Even if you’re not given to “New Year’s Resolutions”, it’s been hard to escape the “year in review” pieces in all forms of media.

I’ve done resolutions some years, only to miserably fail at them, like most folks.  I also used the “theme word” approach for a few years, and that at least made me feel better about my plans for the year.  This year, I read an interesting article that proposed that the key to a successful resolution is not to make one, but to establish processes that you plan to follow in the New Year, with the idea being that processes are what drive results, not end-state declarations.

The process idea makes a ton of sense, but I suppose the real point of a New Year’s Resolution is to contemplate areas for self-improvement, and make an attempt to improve.  So this year, I spent some time thinking about where I want to improve, and have set out some objectives for the year.  I won’t call them “resolutions” (although they probably are), and I am working on defining some habits and processes that are intended to get me there.  I also won’t be publishing them (not here as a formal list, anyhow), but in keeping with the “theme” concept, here’s a summary of my look ahead to 2014:

Read more, write more, exercise regularly, improve my financial management, and embrace my family more.

Pretty boring, I know…but as with everything, the devil is in the details, and I’ve spent some time over the last 2 weeks thinking through those details.  Interestingly, while I expected to do a fair amount of writing during my recent end-of-year vacation, I found once the vacation got going, that I really needed to disconnect and step back from it all, hence the brief hiatus in posting here.  Thanks to a password issue with my company email account, I was also forced into forgoing regular email updates from work, which also turned out to be a break that I sorely needed.  The only downside is that I now face an Inbox that’s likely stuffed to overflowing.  However, beyond figuring out what I’ve been scheduled for today and tomorrow, I won’t be slaving over my email inbox all morning.  I plan to start the year by thinking through a few of the larger projects on my plate and doing some “real work”.  There’s a post in there somewhere about the value of email in today’s working world, and I’ll add that to the list of things that are “in progress”.

Happy New Year!

Is Recurring Revenue a “Market”?

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on December 19, 2013

Bain Capital director Salil Deshpande wrote an article for Xconomy yesterday in which he examined the trend of firms to offer pricing plans based on a recurring stream of income for the firm, such as monthly subscriptions or usage fees.  The concept itself is certainly a powerful one, and Deshpande makes the point that recurring revenue plans help provide a smooth stream of revenue for a firm, and make it easier for consumers to “take the plunge” and purchase a product or service.  It’s much easier to think of paying $4.99 a month for Spotify, versus the “traditional” way of shelling out hundreds of dollars up front for immediate access to a ton of music.

He goes on to outline the challenges of implementing a recurring revenue model, but the article itself got me thinking about the essence of product management in the digital age.  As an investor, my sense is that Deshpande looks at firms who create a successful recurring revenue stream in a positive light, as well he should.  But simply creating a stream of revenue, while essential to a viable business, is not where companies should be focused.  Firms that simply look for ways to take advantage of the recurring revenue model are not looking out for customers, they’re looking out for their own pocketbooks, and that’s not a model for success.  Our focus should always be on solving problems for people and enterprises first and foremost, and then determining how much (and how often) to charge for that service.  

At the end of the article, he references a number of firms whose product IS essentially enabling recurring revenue models for other companies, and so I suppose in that regard, “recurring revenue” does become a product in it’s own right.  But focusing on a revenue model ahead of a product (which Deshpande does NOT imply, btw), is absolutely putting the cart before the horse.

My partners at …

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on December 19, 2013

My partners at the firm would also say: “You don’t always have to be the smartest person in the room. You don’t always have to know the answer. You have to be open to the fact that you might be wrong. Can you be open to the idea that you might be wrong?” How could anyone not answer that question with an “Of course”? But it was a tough question to hear and say: “You know what? I don’t know best.” What a relief when you do that.
Jeremy Zimmer, CEO of United Talent Agency, in the New York Times

For me, this is the essence of leadership in this new age we find ourselves in…leaders won’t always have the answers and shouldn’t pretend they do.  Being honest with yourself is critical to leading an organization of any size.

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Products by Jeff Graves on December 12, 2013

I just finished watching “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, a documentary about Jiro Ono, an 85 year old Japanese sushi chef, who runs one of the most expensive restaurants in the world.  His 10 seat Tokyo restaurant has received 3 Michelin stars, despite the fact that he serves only sushi (no appetizers, desserts or other dishes), which is a quite an accomplishment for any chef.  But unlike many chefs at the pinnacle of their profession, Jiro doesn’t live the celebrity chef lifestyle.  In fact, for almost all of his adult life, he has done one thing – make sushi. In addition to being a pretty interesting story, I thought there were three good lessons here for just about anyone.

Craftsmanship Matters
Jiro relishes the opportunity each day to wake up and deliver an amazing experience to his customers and he’s done so for over 60 years. I was fascinated by the notion that such a simple concept – essentially a dish with 2 ingredients (vinegared rice and raw fish) could consume one’s entire life.  But watching Jiro and his son’s at the fish market selecting the fish, listening to him coach his apprentices on exactly how thin to slice the fish, one got the sense that Jiro is working on a very different level than the average chef.  There are so many factors that go into combining those 2 ingredients in just the right way, and Jiro has spent his life learning and practicing and trying new ways to perfect his product.

Excellence Takes Time
Jiro’s apprentices must serve in the kitchen for 10 years before they are considered to be true sushi chefs, and one apprentice recounted making a time-consuming egg sushi 4 times a day for over 4 months (over 200 times total), before his work was deemed acceptable.  Apparently, those 200 inferior attempts were simply thrown out – I’m not sure I can imagine most people getting something wrong every day for 4 months and retaining their job, but at Jiro’s restaurant, that’s just part of the training process.

What You Put Into It Matters
As important as the sushi chef’s skills are, the ingredients are equally important. Jiro or his sons go to one of Tokyo’s best fish markets every morning to select the fish for that day’s meals. Over the years, they’ve cultivated relationships with fish vendors who have as much of a relentless focus on quality fish as they do.

Don’t Forget Family
His focus does come with costs, though – while Jiro’s 2 sons have both followed in their father’s footsteps, I didn’t get the sense that Jiro was a particularly present father.  He tells a story of his own childhood, and perhaps he didn’t have much to learn from, as it doesn’t appear that either of his parents really guided him. It also didn’t seem as though his sons had much of a choice than to follow in his footsteps – from a young age, the expectation was that they would become sushi chefs, and that one of them would inherit the family business. In the end, the concept of “work life” balance doesn’t seem to be part of Jiro’s life.

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The Story of the Human Body (Daniel Lieberman)

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on December 11, 2013

The Story of the Human Body (Daniel Lieberman)

A really thought-provoking interview with Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman on his new book, which addresses how we eat, how we’ve evolved (and continue to evolve) and why Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on huge sodas maybe wasn’t so bad.

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